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Community Caregiver: 7 Questions With GRACE Seasonal Program Manager Lori Stevens

Meet Lori Stevens, seasonal program manager at GRACE in Grapevine. Stevens oversees critical community programs like Feed Our Kids, which provides nutritional assistance to thousands of children during the summer. Her duties also include spearheading Christmas Cottage during the holiday where thousands of toys are distributed to the less fortunate across Tarrant County. 

Stevens must rely on volunteer and community support, but she always rallies plenty of people to the cause with her cheerful attitude and can-do spirit. Much of her job is recruiting and she feels it is her duty to connect those who want to help with those who need it. We wanted to know more about Stevens and her passion for GRACE, and she was kind enough to answer a few questions: 

Dawn Tongish: Please begin by telling us about one of the programs offered during the year at GRACE called Feed Our Kids. 

Lori Stevens: The GRACE Feed Our Kids program is one of many services provided by GRACE to those in need in Grapevine, Southlake, Colleyville and other communities in northeast Tarrant County. For a large number of children, summer means the end of the school’s “free and reduced lunch” program and the breakfast and lunch meals they count on for nourishment. The GRACE Feed Our Kids program goes directly into their neighborhoods and volunteers set up tents and give out meals and goody bags with books, games and toys. For many of these children, this may be their only meal of the day. And the play time after lunch may form lifelong memories for many—memories of good people and friends and summertime fun. As the Feed Our Kids program comes to a close on Friday, we anticipate nearly 40,000 meals will have been served to children this summer.

DT: What are your duties at GRACE Feed Our Kids?

LS: Feed Our Kids is one of the “seasonal programs” that I manage throughout the year. After Feed Our Kids, my focus shifts to Christmas Cottage and making sure these children and their families have a great holiday. This was our eighth season of Feed Our Kids. My work begins in early spring and my goal is to serve lunches at six sites every weekday beginning on the first day the kids are out of school for the summer and ending the last day before school starts up again in August. In the early stages I ask for volunteers and schedule individuals, groups and other volunteers who adopt days, weeks or longer. I hold training sessions for group leaders and brief volunteers on the details of their sites. As the summer begins, I help group leaders manage their sites and oversee any problems that may arise with scheduled volunteers, provisions or site facilities. And throughout the summer, I continue to recruit volunteers—often the last few weeks in August are the last to be filled.

DT: How did you become involved with Feed Our Kids, and why are you so passionate about the work being done at GRACE?  

LS: The seasonal programs manager position became available while I was working in Client Services at GRACE. Our executive director, Shonda Schaefer, thought my skill set matched what was required of the position. It was a great move because “passion” is a good way to describe my feelings for Feed Our Kids, Christmas Cottage and all of the Seasonal Programs. Whether it’s feeding hungry children, or making sure they start school with a backpack full of school supplies, I feel my life is dedicated to something greater—building trust and building communities. At the same time, I’m connecting those who want to help, to those who need their help. I have a really wonderful job!

DT: How do you describe the hunger crisis, and the desire to fulfill the need on behalf of so many volunteers?

LS: Summer feeding programs were rare when Feed Our Kids started eight years ago. Children on the school’s free and reduced lunch program were left with very few options when summer started. Even now the other feeding programs often require children to walk several blocks, many crossing busy streets, to get lunch. Feed Our Kids goes directly into their neighborhoods—several sites are at large apartment complexes—where the children only need to walk to the apartment common areas to get their lunches. Our volunteers are the first to recognize the importance of visiting these neighborhoods and bringing not only food, but acceptance, understanding and compassion.

DT: It can be difficult for any nonprofit to pay the bills. How do you stay afloat? 

LS: The services and programs of GRACE would not be possible without the generosity of people in the community. We rely solely on contributions from private sources, individuals, companies, churches and other organizations to fund programs. In a very real way, GRACE is only the pathway through which those with the ability and desire to help others can provide assistance and encouragement to those in need.

DT: How can the people of North Texas and beyond help meet your needs for 2014? What are your biggest needs? 

LS: It’s no secret the economy over the last few years has had a devastating impact on our community. Many have experienced job loss or a reduction of work hours. The numbers of people reaching out to GRACE for assistance to get through their crisis have skyrocketed. At the same time, our donors have experienced shortfalls as well, and are unable to give, or give as much as they have in the past.  The result of increasing numbers of people seeking assistance and decreasing donations means funding remains our biggest need. Our promise to all our donors is embodied in the first sentence of our mission statement: “As a steward of God’s blessings and resources in the community,” this is our vow to God and to the community that every dollar given, every pair of jeans donated, every hour volunteered will be used in the most effective way for those we serve.

DT: What is the most memorable moment in your experiences at GRACE?   

LS: There are really so many wonderful memories, it’s hard to choose just one. I have come to know so many children and watched them grow up, literally. I’ve seen their shyness go away—and their personalities come forward. Just recently, at the Back to School Fair, I met the mother of a girl who has been coming to Feed Our Kids for several years. I had the chance to tell her how much I admired the young woman her daughter was becoming. And then, there are the fantastic volunteers who brave North Texas summers, among dozens of other challenges, to bring food to hungry kids. I’ve had memorable moments with each one of them, it seems.

DT: What is the first thing you do when you walk into work each day?

LS: That’s an easy question to answer. Since I’m usually coming in from being out in 95 – 100 degree weather for several hours, I head directly to the refrigerator at GRACE Main and grab a couple of bottles of water.

If you'd like to nominate a local resident for a BubbleLife community profile, contact Dawn Tongish at dtongish@yahoo.com or find her on Twitter at @DawnTongish.

Thursday, September 4, 2014